Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Does Font Make a Difference in the Effectiveness of Library Handouts?

Every so often a handout or document published by a library comes across my desk that makes me squint or shake my head. The problem is frequently with bad design, colors, or layout. Many times the problem is when the author, trying to be cute or unique, decides to use a fancy font. Even at my library I'll make the argument that a simple sans serif font like Arial should be used.  It is not uncommon for the reaction to be a look of "what do you know? You're not a graphic artist!" 

Well, I have found research to back up my point of view. 

A University of Michigan psychologist and grad student, Norbert Schwarz and Hyunjin Song, wanted to see if they could motivate a group of 20-year-old college students to exercise regularly. The students were given written instructions for a regular exercise routine. Some were given instructions printed in Arial, a plain font; others got the instructions in a Brush font, looking as if it was written by hand with a Japanese paintbrush. The Ariel font was easier to read then the unfamiliar and much harder to read Brush font.

The outcome was that the students receiving the Arial font instructions were more enthusiastic about the exercise routine than those receiving them in the Brush font. The psychologists repeated the experiment using a sushi roll recipe and saw similar results. The authors noted:

Apparently the students’ brains mistook the ease of reading about exercise for the ease of actually doing push-ups and crunches, and this misunderstanding motivated them to think about a life change. Those who struggled through the Japanese brushstrokes had no intention of heading to the gym; the reading alone tired them out.

While the fonts used in the study were dramatically different, the research does indicate that font choice can impact the effectiveness of library handouts.

Hyunjin Song, Norbert Schwarz (2008). If It's Hard to Read, It's Hard to Do: Processing Fluency Affects Effort Prediction and Motivation Psychological Science, 19 (10), 986-988 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02189.x
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Tulse said...

The conclusion simply isn't justified by the methodology. Arial is not just easier to read, it is also is generally perceived to be more professional and "authoritative" than something like Brush. My guess is that it is this factor which is at work, and not ease of reading.

waltc said...

The problem with that study is that it's too extreme. A comparison between a legible font like Arial and a readable serif text font (of which there are many--Garamond, Times New Roman, Palatino, Constantia, etc., etc.) would be more interesting.

Now, if your library is given to doing handouts with dark-blue text on light-blue background, or using Comic Sans...well, then, this study is applicable. Otherwise, not so much. So, yes, it's an argument against using "cute" fonts, but not for using Arial.

(Is there a reason you prefer sans for a printed document, when there's a pretty good body of evidence that serif is more readable on the printed page?)

Eric Schnell said...

As always, thanks Walt!

I wasn't trying to use the study as an argument for or to imply the use of sans serif or Arial per say, but how font choice (no cute fonts) could impact the effectiveness of library handouts.

I do say "sans serif font like Arial" as an example but should have instead said "legible font" and left it at that.

I acknowledged the fonts were dramatically different a indeed a comparison between more legible fonts would have strengthened the study.

waltc said...

Thanks for the clarification. As you say, "cute fonts" for body text will almost certainly get in the way of effectiveness. Readability (not the same thing as legibility, but readable fonts are usually fairly legible, and vice-versa) matters. There's plenty of room for cute fonts in headlines and posters...if they're appropriate. So, on the important point you're making: "What Eric sez."